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Learning from History
One wonders how many golf courses the world can accommodate. Having just learned that a new golf course opens every day in some part of the world, the mental picture forms of the whole world ultimately becoming one continuous golf course.

Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon was probably less symbolic than his swing of a golf club on the lunar landscape.

St Andrews (pictured), already with six golf courses, not including the salubrious Kingsbarns and the only marginally less so Kingask, is poised on the brink of the construction of a further three! Depending upon the deliberations of Fife Regional Council, the town may, in the next few years become completely surrounded by golf courses - or, rather, tracts of land purporting to be golf courses. One needs only take a short continental trip to get the grist of my meaning.

With the exception of those middle east and north African artefacts of man's monuments to himself, the majority of new courses are owned and run by banks as the results of foreclosures of badly misjudged loans to speculators. The banks don't want them and neither do the people maintaining them.

If one wonders at the reluctance of continentals to take up the game one needs look no further than the courses they are asked to play. Most bear as much resemblance to a golf course as does my back yard to Kew Gardens. Quality and proliferation of golf courses are almost inversely related.

I fear that golf, despite its apparent buoyancy at this time could well slip into a decline from which it may struggle to recover. Golf died a death before and there is no reason to suspect its immortality now.

Golf was enjoyed by all classes in Scots society in the late 18th century. Despite the portrayal of early golf as the game of the gentry, the links lands of the eastern seaboard were populated by a broad spectrum of society. Parish and church records provide an abundance of evidence for this contention, as does the ad hoc clubs inadvertently formed when someone put up a medal for play.

Although there are records of many such clubs in existence the majority have long since been cut up for use in the privy [toilet] - for this was long before toilet rolls became commonplace.

If the game took hundreds of years to evolve, its demise, in relative terms, occurred in the blink of an eye. Between 1790 and 1830 the game virtually died, leaving only smouldering embers burning in the golfing metropolis of St Andrews.

In Leith, the Honourable Company was bankrupted, its clubhouse, trophies and regalia sold at public auction. The Honourable Company would resurrect itself later, like Crail, Montrose, Aberdeen and others. Some, like Kingsbarns and The Thistle at Leith, however, disappeared altogether. Even in St Andrews it was a close run thing. In 1895 a penurious town council sold off the links, although safeguarding golf in the deed of sale. The new owners turned the links into a rabbit warren and a court action, which went as far as the House of Lords with suits and counter-suits, was required to save it.

What happened at this time should be known and clearly understood by speculators and banks alike, because it could well all happen again. It would be a gross over- simplification to put this demise down merely to economic factors. A sea change occurred in Scottish society at this time. This change may well have been driven by the rampant inflation that made the costs of clubs and featherie balls prohibitively expensive. Certainly, it was penury that put paid to the lavish dining and drinking which was central to the golfing experience.

But the industrial revolution in concert with the age of enlightenment in Scotland was a heady brew that saw salons replace the links, and the mind and not the swing preoccupying the thoughts of the young. A principal part was played by the Mechanics Institutes and the newly founded YMCA, [Young Men's Christian Association] where lantern slide lectures of far away places could be seen and new skills learned, through which a young man could make his fortune.

With innovation, social change and intellectual enlightenment happening so fast, it is hardly surprising that there was little time and even less effort left for golf.

Unless you are under the age of 10 with the cerebral equipment of a professional footballer, you cannot fail to appreciate the present day parallels. Costs of golf have escalated, making it more vulnerable to economic recession. Japan has long been in a near hysterical golfing state yet the effects of recession have bitten so deeply into the game that golf courses are struggling to survive and annual subscriptions to clubs have been found to come low on the domestic budget priorities in Japanese households.

Should recession befall the American economy, who knows what the outcome will be?

American attitudes are said to have changed since the dreadful events of September 11th and, as one US commentator put it: 'There is no telling where it will end.'

This could well be the start of America's age of enlightenment. The game is only as successful as its adherents and they are not the tournament players but the rank and file of the pay-and-play enthusiasts. Their devotion to the game may be as fragile as their wallets and as tenuous as their attention span. The next generation may not be as prepared to give up the next generation of 'Game Boy' as was the last.

It is clear from Japan that, irrespective of your devotion to the game, when the chips are down it comes very low in the average man's priorities. It should be noted, for instance, that massage parlours continue to do good business in Tokyo.

©    17 - DECEMBER 2001

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